A genial, extrovert, giant of a man, popular in artistic and social circles, Val Prinsep belonged to a leading Anglo-Indian family that had already produced several talented amateur artists. He was born in Calcutta on St Valentine's Day 1838; his father, Thoby Prinsep, was a distinguished Indian civil servant, and his mother, the redoubtable Sara, was one of the celebrated Pattle sisters, who also included Julia Margaret Cameron, the photographer, and Virginia, Countess Somers, one of the great beauties of the day. The Prinseps returned to England in 1843, and in 1851 took a lease on Little Holand House in Kensington, where for nearly twenty-five years Sara presided over a salon frequented by celebrities in the worlds of art, literature, politics and science. Val received his earliest art education from G.F. Watts, who lived in the house as its genius-in-residence. By 1857 he had fallen under the spell of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, two of his mother's 'lions', and was helping them to paint murals illustrating the Morte d'Arthur in the Oxford Union. He then went on to study under Charles Gleyre in Paris, where he encountered Whistler, Poynter, George du Maurier and other members of the so-called 'Paris Gang'. He appears as Taffy in Trilby, du Maurier's romanticised account of the vie de bohème, published in 1894. In the 1860s Prinsep came under the influence of Frederic Leighton, his neighbour in the colony of artists which was rapidly establishing itself to the south-west of Holland Park, and in 1879 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, of which Leighton had become President the previous year. This was probably in recognition of his labours on an enormous canvas depicting the durbar held by Lord Lytton at Delhi in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India; the picture was exhibited at the R.A. in 1880 and is now in St James's Palace.
Given his early artistic experience, it is not suprising that Prinsep's work is eclectic. In the late 1850s he toyed with the quaint medievalism of Rossetti and his circle. By the early 1860s he was working in the 'Venetian' idiom that was being explored by so many of the Pre-Raphealites and their contemporaries. Later still he was to opt for a conventional academic mode, with occasional forays into classicism.
My Lady Betty, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1864, falls between two categories of Victorian painting. Superficially it is an eighteenth-century costume piece of a kind that many artists attempted. Millais provides good examples in his paintings of two of Swift's heroines, Stella (Manchester City Art Gallery) and Vanessa (Sudley House, Liverpool), exhibited respectively at the Royal Academy in 1868 and 1869. Or compare Our Grandmother by William Bell Scott's companion Alice Boyd, sold in Christie's Penkill Castle sale, 15 December 1992, lot 139.
At a deeper level the picture shows Prinsep at his most Venetian, evoking a sense of richness and luxury by focusing on a sumptuously attired female figure. Close parallels exist in the contemporary work of Watts, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Leighton and others, not to mention the photographs of Prinsep's aunt, Mrs Cameron. Watts had long been a devotee of Titian, and the atmosphere of cultured indolence peculiar to Little Holland House was more than somewhat Venetian, as Watts implied when he entitled his portrait of Sara Prinsep In the Days of Giorgione. The background of My Lady Betty is clearly based on the house's well documented interior, a picturesque jumble of deeply shadowed rooms glowing with the sombre colours of rich furnishings, and the model was almost certainly one of the many young women, members or friends of the Prinsep family, whom the hospitable Sara and Thoby took under their wing, often when the girls' parents were in India. Sara's niece Julia Jackson (1846-1895), who became the mother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, is one possibility. Certainly she was the right age, being eighteen in 1864.
The Venetian style also owed much to the current obsessions of John Ruskin, yet another habitué of Little Holland House. In the late 1850s Ruskin was undergoing that common Victorian experience, conversion to a 'religion of humanity'. This caused him to make a deep study of Titian and Veronese, who emerge as the heroes of the last volume of Modern Painters (1860). When Val Prinsep and Burne-Jones visited Venice together in the autumn of 1859, they were very conscious of the critic's opinions. 'Ruskin in hand', Prinsep later recalled, 'we sought out every cornice, design, or monument praised by him. We bowed before Tintoret and scoffed at Sansovino. A broken pediment was a thing of horror!' (Magazine of Art, 1904, p.417).
Ironically enough, Venetian influence often played a crucial part in creating a type of picture that was inimical to everything that Ruskin stood for, namely early expressions of Aestheticism, in which the emphasis was firmly on decorative values and meaning played little part. My Lady Betty is interesting in this context, as artists often relied on a sumptuous white and gold brocade as a vehicle for such effects. Leighton's Noble Lady of Venice of 1865 (Leighton House) is one outstanding example. Another is Rossetti's magnificent Monna Vanna of 1866 (Tate Gallery), a picture the artist conceived as a 'Venus Veneta' and considered 'probably the most effective as a room decoration which I have ever painted'.
My Lady Betty was well received by the critics when it appeared at the Academy. F.G. Stephens, writing in the Athenaeum, thought it marked 'a great advance' on Prinsep's previous performances, and Tom Taylor in the Times liked its 'restrained force of colour and robustness of conception'. He was also well aware of its 'aesthetic' character. 'The "Lady Betty"', he wrote, 'a full-length belle of a century ago, in a white, gold-flowered sacque, relieved against a Chinese screen of black and gold, ... is nothing but a graceful study of costume and colour'.